July 4th, Highland Park, IL.
“Mommy, I can’t sleep.”
How many times did my daughter quietly awaken me as a young child with those four words? Her tiny voice punctured the fog of slumber as my mind would straddle dueling thoughts; I’m going to be so exhausted at work tomorrow…. At least I get to catch up on snuggles with Emi..
We would stumble down the hall to her room, climb into her bed, and I’d drape my arms around her sweet little body while stroking her halo of curls. I always marveled at how she could slip into a deep sleep within minutes. We used to call it Mommy Magic. My mere presence was enough to combat any thunderstorm, power outage, or monster.
My daughter just turned 16 and it’s been years since I’ve slept by her side. That all changed on July 4, 2022 in my beloved town of Highland Park, Illinois.
“Mom, there’s been a shooting at the Highland Park Parade. My friends are texting me from there. Where’s Emi?“ my 19-year-old son shouts as I emerge from having just showered.
Emi is a camp counselor for the Highland Park Park District and had to help with Fourth Fest. The camp staff was split; some being assigned to the parade and others to Sunset Park (where the parade ends) to work the carnival.
Panic cascades through me.
My Emi. She’s there.
I call Emi, but she doesn’t pick up.
I call my husband, who has just left for the grocery store. “Have you heard from Emi?”
“I texted her. She’s driving home now. I was going to go get her, but she was already driving home.” I feel some relief, but I need to see her, to touch her, to kiss her. I need her in my arms.
I race down the stairs in my robe, still sopping wet as my son follows me in his pajamas.
“I talked to Dad, Emi is on her way home.”
I turn on the TV, but no network has picked up the story yet. My phone is already blowing up with texts from friends; mass shooting at Highland Park Parade, people are down, shooter is armed and on the loose
I just stand in my den, pacing in my bathrobe, my mind spinning…
Why did I tell emi to be a camp counselor? We should have bought that house in Deerfield…why did we buy this house? Why do we live here?
I think about the millions of different choices I could have made that would not have placed Emi at Sunset Park this morning. My son is looking at me in disbelief. I try to say something comforting, but I have no words.
The garage door opens. My son and I fly outside, not caring that we aren’t dressed. We’re both screaming. “Emi, Emi, get in the house!” She runs to us and I quickly lock us inside.
Emi is crying. I’m crying. My son and I envelop her in our arms and sway, just holding each other. Emi tells us they were all setting up waiting for the parade goers to arrive when swarms of people started running toward the park screaming. The staff were all ushered into the tiny park shelter. After about ten minutes, they were told to walk to their cars in small groups and go home.
My husband arrives home and we sink into the couch. Our eyes ricochet between our phones and the TV. The texts are rolling in at avalanche speed. The news has hit the airwaves and friends around the country are checking on us.
My friend’s name flashes across the television. She is giving a phone interview explaining how she heard shots at the parade, ran into a parking garage, and hid under a car. My friends are simultaneously texting about her interview while it is airing. We’ve all been together since our boys were little. Everyone reports their children are safe. Thank god my boys are okay. Yes, I know they’re 19 and scattered across the country at different colleges. I know some of them drifted apart over the years, but these are still my boys- all of them. These are my boys who piled in the car for a trip to Dairy Queen, who celebrated big wins at Walker Bros, and who ran around Port Clinton Square after Little League. Images of these precise locations are being broadcast around the globe.The glass windows at Walker Bros. are shattered and witnesses are on my television explaining how they hid behind (and inside) dumpsters at Port Clinton Square.
One gut-wrenching clip that keeps looping on TV is of the Highland Park High School Marching Band running down Central Street away from the gunfire. I know these kids. One of them has been Emi’s best friend since they were two. I have to check on my girls; Emi’s tight-knit group of besties. My girls who I took to Ross’s for overnight camp swag and nail polish. My girls who I drove for impromptu trips to Sweet Home Gelato. The girls whose families and I went to the parade and carnival every single 4th of July for years. My girls who, in the past, posed for pictures on the parade route right where people were just shot dead. A quick text to my friends tells me everyone is physically okay.
The hours pass. I haven’t eaten. I haven’t gotten dressed. I’m just glued to the television. My kids sit on either side of me. We keep clicking on network after network and see our quaint little downtown street cluttered with abandoned lawn chairs, strollers, and FBI agents.
I scroll through the endless stream of Facebook posts. I know so many people who were there. The stories are horrifying…
We were running for our lives…it was like a scene from a movie…it was a warzone… we were directly under the gunfire and ran for cover… Everyone was running so fast
I can’t run
I’m physically disabled. If I were there, I would not have been able to run. Before I can pull the words back in, I blurt out, “If god-forbid we are ever in a situation like this. I need you to both promise me you will not stop to help me. I will slow you down. Please promise me you’ll run like hell and don’t worry about me.” My son and daughter look at me in shocked horror.
The shooter is still on the loose, but they just released his identity. Oh god, it’s a former Highland Park High School student. My kids’ phones are relentlessly beeping to the rhythm of the helicopters flying over our house. We sit. We watch the news. We text our shell shocked friends and neighbors.
Hours pass, they catch the shooter. The news slowly shifts to other topics. Everyone but me goes to bed. The sky opens and the rain is tumbling down in sheets. Thunder rages. Lightning sparks. Someone up there is just as pissed as we are.
“Mom, I can’t sleep.”
“Come on sweetie, I’ll sleep in your bed tonight.”
Emi doesn’t fall asleep. We toss and turn together and let the sadness and anger consume us. We know we are beyond fortunate. We know some of our neighbors will never again experience the comfort of lying next to their mom or dad. We think about the sweet little toddler who we will learn the next morning lost both his parents. We ache over the unthinkable losses in our community. We wonder at the randomness of it all. We can’t stop thinking of the boy who was taken to the University of Chicago Hospital in critical condition. Sleep will not come. My mommy magic is gone and I can no longer ward off the monsters.